Then Playing — The Matrix; The Green Knight; Zola

The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999). In revisiting this ahead of the recent sequel, my reaction more or less mirrored original impressions from my opening-weekend experience in the theater what seems like centuries ago. The Wachowski siblings manage a first half that’s deviously entertainment and effective in its escalating dread, and then my enjoyment seriously flags as the film shifts in the direction of ponderous sci-fi mumbo jumbo and overly clamorous action, no matter how crisply rendered and visually inventive the latter component might be. They had ten times the budget as their previous film, the dazzling, splendidly tense feature debut Bound. To the Wachowskis’ credit, every last dime is present on the screen. With the wider scope, the filmmakers grew less connected to the rigorous storytelling that elevated the preceding effort. The influence of The Matrix is undeniable. It can even be argued that the physics-bending feats of the protagonist laid the runway for the onslaught of superhero films that jetted to dominance not longer afterward. As a film rather than a historic artifact, The Matrix is merely middling.

The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021). This screen adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight operates with some of the arch, arid experimentalism that marked David Lowery’s 2017 feature, A Ghost Story. Where that film grew staid in its restraint, The Green Knight is enlivened by resplendent visuals and a commitment to depicting medieval times as an era so grim that even royal luxury was coated in the grime of squalor. Dev Patel effectively plays Gawain as a young man lost in his own destiny, and he’s supporting by fine, sometimes fleeting supporting performances by Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, and, in his usual pinched weirdo mode, Barry Keoghan. I’m particularly fond of the slyly spirited acting by Joel Edgerton, as a Lord who offers Gawain shelter as he nears the end of his quest. In just a few scenes, he constructs a character booming with life and curiosity.

Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2021). Zola has its origins in a lengthy Twitter thread that recounted a young woman’s travails when she got dragooned into all sorts of sordid doings on a road trip to Florida. More officially, the film is adapted from David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article about stream of social media dispatches. Either way, director Janicza Bravo (who co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris, the author behind the acclaimed stage work Slave Play) delivers the wild dramatics with vivid, breathless style, deploying every narrative trick she can think of, each flourish skillfully enhancing the whirlwind tension. The balance Bravo achieves is downright miraculous given the many, many ways the film could collapse in on itself, from turns that defy belief to a tone that teeters between amped-up realism and loopy satire to the overt reminders that the film is reliant on the modern folklore tapped out on online interfaces. When one of the characters effective halts the plot so she can provide her opposing testimony on the events in question, her version drawn from a Reddit post, the film’s audaciousness taps the stratosphere. Taylour Paige is excellent in the title role, fiercely convincing as Zola grows more irritated with her unexpected circumstances.

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